Monday, June 18, 2007

Iceland: Day Nine (Snæfellsnes Peninsula)

We decided to force a bit of West Iceland into our journey since we had an extra day in Reykjavíc and nothing to do with it otherwise. It was June 17th, the national holiday commemorating Iceland’s independence from the Danish, and an entire day of festivities (likely arranged around drinking copious amounts off beer) was planned for downtown, but after breakfast as usual, we got in the car and drove far, far away from most of civilization.

The first surprise (and ensuing U-turn) came when we were about to enter a tunnel and saw a sign for the toll: Kr900, or approximately $15. It being the last day, we didn’t even have 900 kronur between us, were uncertain of whether the tool booth would take a credit card. Michael’s maps revealed the fact that there was an easy way to avoid the tunnel: circling the long finger of the Hvalfjörður. I was particularly excited to see another fjord, this one’s blue, glassy surface much more rewarding than that of the small one we had passed on the East. Circling it took over half an hour, even at 60 mph, but the views were stunning, and it was well worth it.

After passing numerous waterfalls circling the verdant surroundings of the fjord, the terrain grew a bit more rocky, even though we had passed through the town of Borgarnes and therefore reached the official start of the Peninsula (the drive between the fjord and Borgarnes is long and tedious). The peninsula is known for some attractive beaches (too cold for swimming, of course), the usual smattering of historical sites, and the Snæfellsjökull, the smallest of the island’s four glaciers, and so small in comparison to the other three that it isn’t even rendered in white on the Lonely Planet’s color map. The glacier didn’t come into view until hours into our trip; it seemed we hadn’t even gotten to the peninsula until after two, when most other days, we’d seen all there was to see by that time.

Our first point of interest was Gufuskálar, the ruin of a 1,000+ year old outpost where Irish monks had once settled. The site—the ruin that is—isn’t interesting in and of itself, except for the fact the settlers had found a whale’s skeleton on the ground and used its giant jaw bone as a lintel for their well. Other unused parts of the skeleton—the other half of the jaw and some ribs—remain lying in the grass, bleached bright white, but also yellow and green with moss. The ruin, though, is right on the shore of one of my favorite beaches in Iceland thus far: piles of giant lava rocks, dry and hard and rough—perfect for climbing—pile out into a sort of cliff with a 10-15 foot drop into clear blue seawater. This was the warmest day we’ve had yet (it’s rare for this peninsula to be warm at all, so we were very lucky), and sweating in my t-shirt, I jumped all the way out to the farthest point possible, contemplating a conservative cliff dive into the clear water. Of course, I had no swimsuit with me, there was no obvious way back out of the water, and the seas surrounding this island are colder even than my San Francisco’s Pacific, in which I wouldn’t dream of putting even a toe. Also, the rocks underwater were populated by long strands of kelp, waving in the water like so much wet hair. Beautiful to watch, but stomach-turning to touch. I climbed the rocks parallel to the water’s edge, moving farther and farther from the car and the ruins. Soon, I saw a few (very bleached) logs—driftwood from very far away, I imagine, as Iceland hasn’t any trees—and also quite a bit of trash: big, plastic canisters for oil and cleaning products. There has been much more litter all over Iceland than I had expected, and this was rather upsetting. Before turning back for the car, I also saw the remains of another dead thing: another skeleton, this time tiny, but also sun-bleached; a rounded dome with a fin, a few ribs, and two six-inch leg bones confounded me. I don’t know what the creature could have been.

Back in the car, we drove a bit on the highway and then on a very long, very rough gravel (rock, actually) road out Skarðsvík, something I couldn’t imagine being worth the ravaging our car was taking, but which turned out to be worth ten times the ravishing. From behind piles of lava rock peeks a stretch of golden sand—a stunning beach on which a Viking’s burial remains were discovered in the early 1960s. Shockingly, two small boys were cavorting in the waves, waist-deep in water, while their father looked on. I ran down to the shore to test the water’s temperature and saw that, while the tide was out, the water was cutting a delicate pattern of rivulets into the sand. My shoes got wet, but I touched the water; it was, as I had expected, literally icy cold (as cold as the Jökullsárlón’s water, which, if you recall, was filled with giant chunks of ice), but at the shoreline I made an even better discovery. Amongst a meaty swath of kelp that had washed ashore were lodged hundreds of purplish starfish and thousands of tiny sea snails. The starfish were pliable, unlike any I’ve ever seen, and curled around themselves, at times looking more like the tiny purple-pink squid and octopus I’ve seen on dinner plates. I took many pictures, elated with my small, rich discovery—I’d seen many tide pools in Iceland, but very little sea life, and, other than the standard of sheep, horses, and cattle, and the occasional farm dog, and sea birds, of course, very little diversity of animal life. Not that I’m particularly fond of animals, but. . . starfish are quiet and unassuming.

From there onto Saxhóll, where the day began to (for me) lose its magic. Perhaps it was the loss of the beach, which I always fancy above all else, or perhaps it was the short but sharp physical trial of this next spot, but I was no longer having a good time, and it would remain that way, so that ultimately, I will think, perhaps unfairly, poorly of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Saxhóll is a volcanic crater, called “beautiful” by it’s point of interest sign, but which I consider quite ugly. Reddish-blackish-brown, it rises up from a plain of lava rocks: a big, big pile of lava rocks (exciting, right? Right. . .) There is a “path” that winds up and around it (at a very sharp incline), and I was heaving harder for breath than I ever have in any of my visits to the gym after only three or four minutes of fast climbing (perhaps my workouts aren’t what they ought to be). One must climb fast for fear of falling down or off; the incline of the path is about 65˚, the incline of the hillside about 80˚, and the space between the path and side of the crater is a matter of a few inches. After a 60 second break, I resumed climbing and reached the top after another three or four minutes, where the strongest winds I’ve yet encountered threatened to send my flying right off. Furthermore, there was no attractive view to make my climb worthwhile, so while I stood at the top, my throat dry and raw, my lungs as dry and raw, my chest heaving, hair blowing across my face and sticking there to the sweat, feeling as if I was about to upchuck the breakfast I’d eaten over six hours ago, I had nothing to gratify my senses; cheated, bereft, I turned around to make my way down. Michael stayed to take pictures (of nothing, I’m sure, because that was what was up there.) On the way down (far more treacherous than the way up, thanks to the “path’s” composition of the same loose dust, dirt, and gravel that composes the entire crater), I fell four times (and slid/skidded countless others), even though I kept my feet perpendicular to the path (parallel would have been an immediate snow-less, ski-less ski) and proceeded with bent knees and utmost care, as my dad taught me to do as a frightened child. I got back to the car, peed next to the driver’s side front tire, and took refuge from the wind inside. Here, I began to cough, my lungs slowly repopulating with the necessary flow of warm mucosal lining, and I continued coughing intermittently for an hour or so afterward. Michael liked it, though, so I can’t say it’s no good for everyone.

Back on the road, we were now seeing quite a bit of Snæfellsjökull, and we snapped pictures out the car window, hoping the clouds would move away from the snowcaps in order to render them more photographically visible (our digital cameras, it seems, have trouble picking the white of snowy glaciers from the bright light of the sky, and clouds makes it even worse; eyes are far better suited to this task). We saw a turn-off marked “Snæfellsjökull” and, the glacier seeming closer than any other thus far, took the turn, thinking this might be our opportunity to finally touch a glacier. Harumph. A bit up the (gravel) road, there was a fork, one side going up to the glacier, the other a flat drive that seemed to skirt it. We took the glacier side, but a minute or so up the hill was posted a big yellow sign reading “Danger! The glacier is a very dangerous area to cross. There are numerous deep chasms that are invisible until too late. Seek information.” This warning read in Icelandic, English, German, and French, but didn’t suggest where such information might be had, and was thereby incredibly frustrating. The warning sounded strong enough that, not having a four wheel drive, we decided to forego the road (with some disappointment). There was no place on the very narrow, steep drive to turn around, so I had to back down the cliffside (woot). As I did so, a blue jeep came up behind us (not yet onto the narrow incline; that is, before the fork. Even though I was clearly descending, in reverse, he continued to drive forward, without giving me space to remove myself from his path. Then, he honked and made gestures at me! Bah. I yelled a bit at him (which yelling, unfortunately, was only audible to poor Michael), and we turned onto the other side of the fork as he sped up the mountain’s side, where we had been too trepidatious to go. This side of the fork was another rotten, rocky road, and we bumped along for quite some time wondering where it would lead us when, suddenly, it just ended, without warning, dropping six inches down into a dirty plain littered with boulders and an abandoned bulldozer. I slammed the breaks and we skidded to a stop a few inches from the drop. Swearing, I turned the car around. We were (that is, Michael was) still aching after the glacier route, so when we came back to the fork, we decided to try it despite the warning. I began up the road, somewhat jokingly reminding him to keep his eyes peeled for chasms and insisting that he take full responsibility should anything bad happen. About half a kilometer up the road, though, the terrain went from gravel to rock, and the incline (maybe 50˚ or 60˚) coupled with the material scared the little car, which didn’t respond well to my pumps of the gas pedal. I told him that, unfortunately, we couldn’t go any further, and again set to the task of backing down the hill. Along the way, a red jeep came barreling down upon us, nose to nose, and the driver gave us a cold stare for standing in the middle of his road, and for the slow speed at which I was progressing backward. Somehow, I found a makeshift turnout of rock and grass to pull, backward, into, so that he could squeeze by me at whatever speed he so chose. Then, I continued down in my careful manner, until I had room to turn around and properly drive back to the main highway. Doing so, we saw the red Jeep speeding down the dead-end fork we had left behind minutes before. They didn’t know quite so well where they were going either, and we had a good laugh at them, almost wanting to hang around in order to make the same goony faces at them that they’d made at us just before.

It was, by now, five o’clock, and neither of us had eaten since breakfast (that’s a lie; we had stopped at a gas station in Borgarnes for Michael’s Coke Zero and I’d had an ice cream, but that’s it). Thus began the dreaded search for dinner, in the middle of nowhere, with Reykjavík still hours away. We hadn’t seen the Northern coast of the Peninsula, and wanted to, so we took a turn out of the way and drove half an hour to Stykkishólmur, which has a bay containing 2,700 tiny islands. It looked like God’s toilet bowl after a nice big poop. The town had a few restaurants that looked appetizing enough to me, but which hadn’t any edible options for Michael except a $30 risotto he wouldn’t have liked anyway. This frustrated him to no end, because Lonely Planet had promised pizza. We hit the road again, did another 30 minutes to get back to where we had started, and poked our heads into a little dirty roadhouse called Vegemót, which, despite its name, boasted no vegetables other than french fries. We drove on, thinking we could at least get a Skyr at a gas station, so stopped at a few, finding nothing but soda, ice cream, candy, and hot dogs.

We kept driving. The road, as we came within the area of the fjord, began to get all bunged up with cars, and I repeatedly got stuck behind drivers moving at 50 mph, when I had been driving 80+ all day. To top it off, we were hungry, exhausted, and within, according to signs, an hour of Reykjavík. I wanted to speed home as fast as possible. Soon I realized that the signs for Reykjavík were completely misleading, because they referred to the tunnel route, while we were taking the fjord route, adding at least an extra half hour to the trip. Writhing with frustration, I moved to pass a trailer and heard a honk; I had almost plowed unwittingly into a white Yaris that had moved, without warning, to pass me. I railed and Michael shook. I swore and Michael suggested slowing down. “How fast are you going?” he asked. I told him 60. “54 is the maximum speed limit on this island,” he said. “I don’t give a fuck what the maximum speed limit on this island is,” I told him. Ignoring him, I prepared again to pass, when he pointed across the way and said, “there’s a cop right there; you’re going to pass someone, going 90, right in front of a cop.” Infuriated, I swung back into line behind the trailer. “Do you want to drive?” I seethed. Too bad he doesn’t know how. Going about 50 mph (the trailer had slowed even more when he spotted the cop), I burned inside with the rage of dreams in which you run and run and get nowhere. “I am having a problem,” I grunted out to my compatriot, for whom I was feeling very little compatriotism at the moment, furious with him, myself, and the situation. “Do you want to pull over?” he asked. That was the last thing I wanted to do; I needed to move, and now I had this stupid fjord to go around. I came up to the turn off for the fjord and took a left. I had the road back to myself again, but I was still wound tightly from moments before, and I began to cry and shake. I pulled over, got out of the car, and took big breaths of the icy air. I walked around the car for a few minutes, breathing, sobbing, stopping and starting again. All the while I felt guilty, knowing that my passenger was starving and that I was only adding more time to the duration he must wait for food, completely at my mercy. I got back in the car, perhaps prematurely, because I started driving and, apologizing, I explained, “It’s just that I’ve basically been driving for 10 hours.” The reality of that statement out loud broke me into tears again, and I continued along the road at a moderate 60 mph while Michael cleaned my glasses. Soon enough, the peace of the fjord and its empty road soothed me, and an hour later, we made it back to Reykjavík.

I drove straight to the corner of the Laugavegur where we had previously scoped out two vegetarian restaurants. One was closed, leaving the other, Á Næstu Grösum, which Lonely Planet calls the best vegetarian restaurant in Reykjavík. It was so good, and so cheap compared to our other dining forays, that I might call it the best restaurant period. The food is offered service-buffet style; you see vats of everything they have on offer and a kind hostess/server describes all the dishes to you. There is a daily special for Kr1150, or a combination of three items for Kr1250, four items for Kr1350, etc. There are also gorgeous soups, served in big, deep bowls, for Kr700 (mind you, this is cheap for Iceland, even though it’s a $10 soup; remember my soup in bread was Kr1090, or $15). I had a carrot/curry/coconut soup (beyond delicious) and the special, which was a vegetarian loaf (beans, seeds, nuts, and other stuff), sweet potato mousse, brown rice, mushroom gravy, apple/celery/grape/walnut salad (whole walnuts, and walnuts aplenty), and green salad. There was also all-you-could-want bread (the bread, by the way, was amazing; dense, chewy, and filled with nuts and seeds, it seemed almost raw inside—that is, uncooked—that is, technically not bread at all, but a better formulation devised by chefs who only eat raw, and had therefore made a hearty, nutty, and almost sweet loaf by pressing seeds and grains together under heavy pressure), with all-you-could-want dips: hummus and an incredible sweet ginger paste. We were starving and ate like savages, but the food was awesome and would have been even if we hadn’t been so hungry.

The restaurant is on the second floor of a corner building, right across from one of the more popular bars in town, so we had a great view of Independence Day revelers as we ate, and sat a while after we’d finished, just watching the drunken young Reykjavíkers dance and shout and flirt in the street. A cluster of girls, dressed in a combination of 80s, punk, and vintage that wouldn’t be out of place in the East Village or Lower East Side, stood outside the bar in a cluster and were our primary point of interest. Smokers can’t smoke in Icelandic bars, but they can take their beers out to the sidewalk, and this group was smoking, drinking, dancing, shouting, laughing, and accosting passersby, and a few of them were extremely attractive (the Icelandic combination of white blond hair, apple-y pink cheeks, and frosty blue eyes hasn’t been lost on us). We watched until they dissipated, and returned to our car and our guesthouse. I drew a much-needed piping bubble bath while Michael caught up on his reading of my blog. I then took to bed with Les Enfants Terribles and the little bottle of filched Cabernet, while Michael paced like a caged animal. Our drive, though long and tedious, hadn’t physically exhausted him as it had me. He decided to go out for a walk to watch the revelers, and I stayed in bed. I finished the Cocteau, read less than 10 pages of my next book, and passed out, not moving until 7:49 the next morning.

More photos of day nine.

1 comment:

F3 said...

Cute starfish.
Too bad you didn't include some photos of the pretty Icelandic girls.